Going Astray

Photograph by Herve Guibert
Capability and Errancy

One of the final pieces Michel Foucault was able to complete for publication before his death was an homage to his beloved teacher, Georges Canguilhem. It was published both in a French metaphysics journal and as the introduction to the English translation of Canguilhem’s seminal text, The Normal and the Pathological. In his piece, Foucault takes note of something important to Canguilhem, error:

At the center of these problems, one finds that of error. For at the most basic level of life, the processes of coding and decoding give way to a chance occurrence that, before becoming a disease, a deficiency, or monstrosity, is something like a disturbance in the informative system, something like a “mistake.” In this sense, life—and this is its most radical feature—is that which is capable of error.

(Foucault 1998, 476)

Life as being that which is capable of error bursts through Foucault’s oeuvre, illuminating so much of what can often be perceived as its darkest moments. This comment on Canguilhem at the end of his life furnishes so much of what was already present in lecture series such as Abnormal or central works like Discipline and Punish. However, it also allows readers to acquire a more immediate understanding of something crucial at stake in Foucault’s work: how we conceive of life. Giorgio Agamben uses this position of errancy and subjectivity in Foucault’s essay to oppose the conception “of the subject on the basis of a contingent encounter with the truth” (Agamben 1999, 221). But one can make a much simpler argument: if to live is fundamentally to always be at risk to err, biopolitical circuitry has had no other goal than to determine, define, and eliminate error in life.

This “disturbance” in the information system becomes a crucial node of resistance in the Foucauldian framework. To go astray is to resist.

The normal and the abnormal become a schema through which all broader technologies can be applied. The initial shift towards the disciplinary society is marked by, among other things, the fact “power no longer manifests itself through the violence of its ceremony, but it is exercised through normalization, habit, and discipline” (Foucault 2015, 240). Subjects move through and interact with these normalizing apparatuses, always with the goal of reintegration; however, it may not always end there. Abnormality is a form of “anarchy” from which society must be defended, it disrupts the proper flow of bodies, information, capital, and the maximization of state forces (Foucault 2003, 318). It is a threat to development itself. Madness, perversity, disability, indolence, criminality; these are categories in the human sciences that help differentiate and categorize the abnormality that constitutes the tide that crashes against the logic of production and the politics of utility. The task of biopolitics can be described as a secular continual pastoral gaze. The pastor is tasked with detecting abnormality and managing circuitries. For this reason, the sovereign right to life is not completely dissolved in this new regime – it is merely reworked and given a new assignment and rationality. Those who have gone astray, whose lives are in error, become a risk that warrants their confinement, correction, and, often, their liquidation.

It is in this sense that one can understand Foucault’s genealogical work on disciplinary systems as a historical cartography of paths of resistance and capture. This resistance can take various forms. There are moments where a direct affront to a law results in its neutralization. Alternatively, there are also those who, by their form of life or mode of existence, challenge the economic, medico-juridical, or state practices under which they suffer.

Finally, a clear distinction can be made between these two forms of going astray; those who flee, who end up at the limit of the contemporary dominant regime, and those who get lost in it, those who short-circuit technologies of power from within its grip and inside its own framework. The neutralization of apparatuses remains common to both these forms of confrontation and freedom in the anarchy of abnormality.

The Norm
L’orthopedie, 1741

In Discipline and Punish, among the provided images of panoptic mechanisms, rigid pedagogical practices, and torturous solitary imprisonment, there is a far more placid sketch. It is a depiction of a crooked tree that is tethered to a post by a rope, preventing it from sprouting out in a deformed manner. The image’s origin is the first volume of a series of works on “the art of correcting and preventing deformities in children” by Nicolas Andry, the inventor of the term “orthopedics” (Kohler 2010, 394). The image is a perfect encapsulation of the ideal functioning of apparatuses of normalization. The establishing of constraints, the redirection of the mechanics of a living body, is what is fundamental to the disciplinary apparatus.

Timetables, large-scale cooperation in a factory, and drilling; they all function to initiate a self-propelling momentum in the body. Prior to articulating his theory of docility, in a lecture in 1973, Foucault uses an extensive amount of care analyzing the shift from the policing of morality to the policing and instillation of “habit”. Initially, following the Humean conception, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, habit had a primarily critical use. Its role was that of reanalyzing “traditional obligations founded on a transcendence, and to replace these obligations with a pure and simple obligation of the contract” (Foucault 2015, 238). In the nineteenth century, the conception of habit shifts. Habit evolved into a valued tendency which people must submit to. Habit becomes the fabric laid across a matrix of links that connects the order of things.

However, these habits can only be instilled effectively in a regime that functions along the lines of a norm. For Canguilhem, “[t]he normal is not a static or peaceful, but a dynamic and polemical concept” (Canguilhem 1989, 239). Foucault extends this definition. “Perhaps we could say it is a political concept”, because “the norm brings with it a principle of both qualification and correction. The norm’s function is not to exclude or reject. Rather it is always linked to a positive technique of intervention and transformation” (Foucault 2003, 50). Normalizing power is tasked with reaching out and pulling back those who have wandered off or those who are not quite aligned with a productive modality. The normal displaces the moral, virtuous, and perfected subject. But a trace of morality remains in the notion of the norm.

Normalizing judgements meet straying subjects precisely where they are situated, and render them docile, thus productive, and therefore within the acceptable variance of the norm. That is the ruthless advantage of normalizing power, its judgement can pierce anywhere and immediately send a subject—a singular piece of data—through the necessary corrective circuitries.

The norm is what directs both biopolitical apparatuses and disciplinary technologies. It is what flows between both, it is what directs their modes of intervention and regulation. “The norm is something that can be applied to both a body one wishes to discipline and a population one wishes to regularize” (Foucault 2003b, 254). The disciplinary and biopolitical circuitry merge at the point of the abnormal, each with different levels of evaluation and activity.

The Pastoral Paradox

The emergence and development of pastoral power in the Christian context marks an important evolution in the execution and domain of power, but also in the surveillance of abnormality. Power is redefined in the pastoral context. “The shepherd wields power over the flock rather than over the land” (Foucault 2001, 301). Pastoral power sits at the connecting roots of the administration of population and the regulation of life, it has a small but informative role to play in the development of biopolitics. The pastor concerns themselves with the conduct of both individual members of the flock, but also the general community of the flock. Its divine purpose, the solemn responsibility God bestows upon the pastor, is to ensure the salvation of the flock in its entirety. However, with pastoral power comes a paradox, one that is not unlike the paradox of the biopolitical administrating of life. “The sheep that is a cause of scandal, or whose corruption is in danger of corrupting the whole flock, must be abandoned” (Foucault 2007, 169). This paradox is the violent sovereign kernel in the pastoral. If the flock is to be saved, it must be pure. The good shepherd must keep their senses tuned to the possibility of any corruption which may desecrate the flock with its profane presence. This is the primary modality of the “sacral prohibition” (Stiker 1999, 26).

However, salvation takes on a new orientation in the era of the birth of the modern state. No longer is there a closed salvation history, one where empires and kingdoms, “at a certain moment, had to become unified as the universal time of an Empire in which all differences would be effaced […] and this would be the time of Christ’s return” (Foucault 2007, 260). The indefinite deferral of the return of Christ pulls the worries of the pastoral back to the secular game of pure immediate governance. This new salvation will take the form of the maximization of state forces, which will be achieved through policing. “The police must ensure the state’s splendor” (Foucault 2007, 313). At the center of these series of practices that constitute the state, the police, and strategies of population and security, is development and productivity. Salvation becomes biopolitical. And with productivity as its criterion, the problem of abnormality becomes a problem of social order and of deliverance.

Foucault argues that one could “take up” the “problem of psychiatry as a social defense at the end of the nineteenth century, starting with the problem of anarchy and social disorder” (Foucault 2003, 318).

The Anarchy of Abnormality and the Abnormality of Anarchy

Édouard Seguin, the French physician who was acclaimed for his work with institutionalized disabled children, wrote a clinical text in 1846 that was widely disseminated across Europe and the United States, The Moral Treatment, Hygiene, and Education of Idiots and Other Backward Children. European physicians lauded it as “the Magna Charta of the emancipation of the imbecile class!” J.E. Wallin an American physician, seemingly no less impassioned, identified Seguin as a “prophet”, and described his book as “the best work done since his day for the amelioration of the feeble-minded”. The teachers following Seguin’s didactic methodology must “call out to the soul of the child” (Wallin 1924, 18). For children diagnosed with “idiocy” possess an instinct that is in a “wild state without being integrated”. This does not just mean that the child’s instinct is not properly integrated within their “organs and faculties”, it is also a fundamental lack of integration with this very world and all of its precious moral expectations. Seguin describes the disabled child as one with a mode of being that “removes him from the moral world” (Foucault citing Seguin 2006, 210). Within the norm sits an assertion about one’s own moral position in the world. A violent moral condemnation sits at the root of the identification of abnormality. There is a political distinction as well. The abnormal child’s diagnosed disposition is one that expresses not symptoms, but rather “natural and anarchical elements” (Foucault 2006, 212). The abnormal child is described as possessing “a certain anarchic form of will”. The normal, desirable, adult will is “a will that can obey”. The will of the “idiot” is one which “anarchically and stubbornly says ‘no’”. Seguin’s recommendation is that teachers should intervene in such a way that produces “a total physical capture that serves to subject and master the body” (Foucault 2006, 217). It remains a mystery how psychiatrists struggled with why a child may become “anarchic” with such instructors. Unsurprisingly, Seguin’s recommendations became the model and “inspiration” for “publicly and privately supported institutions” tasked with the education, confinement, and sequestration of disabled children in America in the early twentieth century (Wallin 1924, 19).

This relationship between anarchy and abnormality also functions in the opposite direction. Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist, argued that “[b]iological, anatomical, psychological, and psychiatric science” could provide “a way of distinguishing between the genuine fruitful, and useful revolution from the always sterile rot and revolt”. Lombroso describes revolutionaries such as Marx and Charlotte Corday as possessing “wonderfully harmonious physiognomies”. Contrarily, in his analysis of a photo of forty-one anarchists arrested in Paris, “31 percent of them had serious physical defects. Of one hundred anarchists arrested in Turin, thirty-four lacked the wonderfully harmonious figure of Charlotte Corday or Karl Marx” (Foucault 2003, 154).

In abnormality, there is a thread that runs through to a political assertion of anarchy; and in anarchy, there is a thread that runs through to a medico-juridical assertion of abnormality.

Wandering Deviance

In The Punitive Society, Foucault follows the work of the French physiocrat and jurist, Guillaime Le Trosne, and his policy prescriptions for vagabondage and begging. The vagabond has a peculiar position in the social body. They are not described “in relation to consumption, to the mass of goods available, but in relation to the mechanisms and processes of production” (Foucault 2015, 45). The vagabond is not simply a thief. The vagabond instead must be dealt with and penalized because they attack the very mechanisms of production. It is in the vagabond’s refusal to work and their vagrancy that the crime is found; not in any one particular action that can be juridically singled out in time, but in going astray. Le Trosne believes them to be an enemy comparable to a foreign army: “they live in a real state of war with all citizens” (Le Trosne 1764, 9). The true problem lies in their strange positionality. “They live in society without belonging to it” (Foucault 2015, 49). Le Tronse’s warlike position towards these bodies indicates that they represent an internal yet hostile and foreign world; one that must be eliminated. It is not simply an action, but a form of existence that is identified as the problem. And considering at the advent of each economic crisis, vagabondage increased, everything must be done to capture and hide these escapees of the productive cycle. “There are aspects of evil that have such a power of contagion, such a force of scandal that any publicity multiplies them infinitely” (Foucault 1965, 67). They are just outside the reach of the productive apparatus, and always at risk of contaminating the productive process with the viral intensity of a different world and a different form-of-life. “[B]etween the two worlds there can be only war, hatred, and fundamental hostility” (Foucault 2015, 55).

Children fall through the stockades of the disciplinary apparatus and the circuitry of the biopolitical regime as well. In many ways they are its most precious target. A utopian socialist publication in nineteenth century France retells an interaction between a judge and a boy charged with criminal vagrancy:

‘The judge: One must sleep at home. – Béasse: Have I got a home? – You live in perpetual vagabondage. – I work to earn my living. – What is your station in life? – My station: to begin with, I’m thirty-six at least; I don’t work for anybody. I’ve worked for myself for a long time now. […] I’ve plenty to do. – It would be better for you to be put into a good house as an apprentice and learn a trade. – Oh, a good house, an apprenticeship, it’s too much trouble. And anyway the bourgeois … always grumbling, no freedom. – Does not your father wish to reclaim you? – Haven’t got no father. – And your mother? – No mother neither, no parents, no friends, free and independent.’ Hearing his sentence of two years in a reformatory, Béasse ‘pulled an ugly face, then, recovering his good humour, remarked: “Two years, that’s never more than twenty-four months. Let’s be off, then!’

(Foucault 1977, 290-291)

His reaction seems absurd, especially in the face of the horror that is incarceration. However, here one ought to heed the words of Bataille. “When we laugh at childish absurdity, the laugh disguises the shame that we feel, seeing to what we reduce life” (Bataille 2014, 47). Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and still today, the moral nomadism of the vagrant, whose mode of being is one perpetually in error, strikes a unique fear. Through error, the undefined work of freedom comes into view.

Lost in the Circuitry

There are those, on the other hand, who are embedded deep within a power relation, with very little space for evading ensnarement. So, they press inward. They expose the faulty wiring of the biopolitical circuitry and lean into it, causing it to either expose its own weaknesses and frailties, or to short-circuit altogether. With limited options and a subject-function imposed on them – they reverse the strengths of the dominant power. For, in a very particular sense, they have a more intimate sense of the tools and technologies in play, even if they do not wield them.

For Foucault, the militant heroes of anti-psychiatry were not the likes of RD Laing, nor any practitioner. They were the hysterics. The hysteric, as a clinical case, presented an immediate epistemological nightmare scenario for psychiatric power. “[T]he psychiatrist’s knowledge is one of the components by which the disciplinary apparatus organizes the surplus-power of reality around madness” (Foucault 2006, 233). The establishing of a domain of reality and the ascription of truth is completely in the hands of the psychiatrist on the floor of the asylum.

If, as Foucault suggests, psychiatrists acquired their role as defenders of the social against the aberrant dangers of the mad through their access to its reality, hysteria constitutes the worst kind of epistemological crisis. Hysteria collapses the walls between reality and simulation. This is why the psychiatrist Jules Falret, whose work was foundational to initial theories of folie à deux, rational insanity, and mass behavioral phenomena as forms of social contagion, is left with no option other than to pathetically attest: “The life of the hysterics is just a constant lie” (Foucault 2006, 307). One wonders what that outburst means for Falret’s several volumes of clinical study.

Moving to the twentieth century, in December of 1972, those incarcerated at the Toul prison revolted. Generally, the detainees would use methods of escape guards, wardens, and other officials knew how to respond to or counter: suicide or breakout. But this was not the strategy these prisoners utilized. Instead, a complete inversion occurred. A barricade arose within the walls of the detention center. The complex system of enclosure became their entrenchment. All the mechanisms that they had come to know so well through their cruel subjugation became tactical elements in their defense.

They took no hostages, they led the guards who had abused them to the gates of the now occupied prison and let them leave. In that moment, in this young sovereign territory behind the prison walls, the victims of an uninterrupted regime of penality suspended the entire practice of it. Despite having chained prisoners to their beds for days on end, pushing prisoners frequently to suicide, and regularly administering sedatives against their will, the guards were let free (Foucault 2021b, 252). The only place in France where the logic of political torture momentarily subsided was inside the Toul detention center, in the midst of a revolt. The prisoners chose to hold no leverage over the administrators beyond the building itself. Guards would be allowed back into their place of work only once they had recognized those they incarcerate “as a force with which one negotiates” (Foucault 2021, 235). Foucault takes this revolt as proof that “we can call “political” any struggle against established power when it constitutes a collective force, with its own organization, objectives and strategy” (Foucault 2021, 236).

This journey through revolts within biopolitical circuitry will close in Denver, Colorado, in 1978. A disability advocacy group, ADAPT (then named Atlantis), had been campaigning for access to public transportation for over a year. Their requests went without response. This is a marginal population, on the margin of the productive apparatus, and therefore in the margins of the social order. Deprived of transportation, one can imagine the hubristic city officials not seeing much of a threat in this population they had so thoroughly restricted and confined. Later that year, the city of Denver’s transportation department purchased a new fleet – without lifts.

The state of Colorado had imposed immobility on the disabled population of Denver. In the face of a complete monopolization of mobility, these protestors abandoned their respectable democratic strategy and opted for militancy. Early on a Wednesday morning, thirty disabled militants barricaded an intersection and blocked two of these brand-new buses. Some even pulled their bodies under the chassis against the tires, preventing them from moving at all. There were attempts at arrest, but the increasing commotion and unexpected traffic made it nearly impossible. Of course, serendipitously, the police buses were not equipped with lifts either (Worthington 2017).

Their imposed immobility becomes the city of Denver’s. This act, this halting of a city, interrupted the flow of bodies, the flow of capital, and productive processes. The “concrete utopia of cybernetic Empire” was, at one node, for one moment, disrupted (Tiqqun 2011, 152). And though this militant act was focused, it scrambled busing, pulled police off their patrol routes, and stopped itinerant workers. Every act that motions towards the insurrectionary, even if minor in its militancy, gestures at something beyond what is immediate to it. It gestures at another world. This weaponization of the very conditions of their subjugation disrupted an entire city and, for a moment, exposed the weakness of the circuitries that seamlessly subjugate all.

Conclusion: Other Life

Giorgio Agamben, calling upon the work Walter Benjamin, attests that “the state of exception turned into rule signals law’s fulfillment and its becoming indistinguishable from life” (Agamben 1998, 53). The law as indistinguishable from life, that is the horror at the core of the lingering state of exception. One could say the same of the biopolitical apparatus; that its perfect functioning is found when one’s life, its motions, habits, and behaviors become indistinguishable from the processes that “ensure the state’s splendor” (Foucault 2007, 313). The terror of the norm reigns everywhere life and policing enter a zone of indiscernibility. Biopolitical circuitry functions seamlessly when one can no longer identify its content. The means of control become so vast, and so precise, one no longer notices them. Deleuze describes the control society as comparable to a highway. “[B]y making highways, you multiply means of control”, one can “travel infinitely and ‘freely’ without being confined while being perfectly controlled” (Deleuze 2007, 327).

The images of a disabled teenager sleeping on hot asphalt under the shadow of a wheel well, of a child grinning as he is taken to serve his sentence in a reformatory, or of a vagabond wandering in affirmation and search of a freedom industrialization has stolen from them are all images of error. They are those who have strayed from the norm, failed to develop habit, and therefore present a danger. Some present a challenge to the disciplinary apparatuses that attempt to capture them and render them docile, others threaten the biopolitical salvation of the flock. However, they all are the presence of a different life, another life. As Foucault writes of the cynics in his final lectures: “There can only be true life as other life, and it is from the point of view of this other life that the usual life of ordinary people will be revealed as precisely other than the true” (Foucault 2011, 314). The cynic attests to those horrified by their actions, that they in fact live in truth. This interplay between processes of subjectivation and the fluid dynamic of truth and error comes to constitute a central element in Foucault’s work on normativity.

When life becomes perfectly isomorphic with its systems of control, when it never leaves the “highway,” is self-formation possible? Abnormality, though it bears the etchings of a history of abuse, confinement, pathologization, castigation, and death, also carries a very particular and subversive freedom. It is a freedom of divergence; and it is divergence that has always been, and must forever remain, undefined and anarchic.

To err is to affirm life.


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.) Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. “Absolute Immanence.” In Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.) Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bataille, Georges. 2014. Inner Experience. (S. Kendall, Trans.) Albany: State University of New York Press.

Canguilhem, Georges. 1989. The Normal and the Pathological. (C. Fawcett, Trans.) New York: Zone Books.

Deleuze, Gilles. 2007. “What is a Creative Act?” In D. Lapoujade Eds., Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e).

Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. (R. Howard, Trans.) New York: Pantheon Books.

__. 1977. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York: Pantheon Books.

__. 1998. “Life: Experience and Science.” In J. Faubion Ed. The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. New York: The New Press.

__. 2001. “Omnes et Singulatim.” In J. Faubion (Ed.) Power: The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 Volume 3. (R. Hurely, Trans.) New York: The New Press.

__. 2003. Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France 1974-1975. (G. Burchell, Trans.) New York: Picador.

__. 2003b. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976. (D. Macey, Trans.) New York: Picador.

__. 2006. Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the College de France 1973-1974. (G. Burchell, Trans.) New York: Picador.

__. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-1978. (G. Burchell, Trans.) New York: Picador.

__. 2015. The Punitive Society: Lectures at the College de France 1972-1973. (G. Burchell, Trans.) New York: Picador.

__. 2011. The Courage of Truth (The Government of the Self and Others II): Lectures at the College de France 1983-1984. (G. Burchell, Trans.) New York: Picador.

__. 2021. “To Escape Their Prison.” In K. Thompson, P. Zurn Eds., Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group (1970-1980). Minneapolis: Minnesota UP.

__. 2021b. “The Toul Speech.” In K. Thompson, P. Zurn Eds., Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group (1970-1980). Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Kohler, Remi. 2010. “Nicolas Andry de Bois-Regard (Lyon 1658–Paris 1742): The Inventor of the Word ‘Orthopaedics’ and the Father of Parasitology.” Journal of Children’s Orthopaedics: Official Journal of the European Paediatric Orthopaedic Society (EPOS) 4 (4): 349.

Le Trosne, Guillaume. 1764. Mémoire sur les vagabonds et sur les mendiants. Paris: P.G. Simon.

Stiker, H-J. 1999. A History of Disability. (W. Sayers, Trans.) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Tiqqun. 2011. This Is Not a Program. (J. Jordan, Trans.) South Pasadena: Semiotext(e).

Wallin, J.E. 1924. The Education of Handicapped Children. New York: The Riverside Press.

Worthington, Danika. 2017. “Meet the Disabled Activists from Denver who Changed a Nation.” Denver Post. July 5.

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